Bill Holden has women trouble in... Rachel and the Stranger (1948)
Rachel and the Stranger is a film that took me by surprise. I'm not inclined towards movies that take place in America's pioneer days (which is why I'm not always motivated to watch westerns), and the premise of a man buying an indentured servant to be his wife sounded, well, icky. But when I heard that it starred William Holden, Loretta Young, and Robert Mitchum, I was all in. Luckily, the film proved to be much more complex and delicate than I expected.
A note about my screenshots before we continue: this film hasn't been released on DVD but I have it recorded on my DVR, so in order to get some of my images, I took pictures of my TV screen, hence the not-so-great quality. Sorry about that.
The film starts with a singing man coming closer to the camera from a distance. As he gets nearer, it turns out that it's Robert Mitchum, or rather his character Jim. He approaches a small, sad-looking cabin and an equally small and sad-looking little boy named Little Davey. David, his father (William Holden), is up on a hill in the distance. His wife just died and he can't stop sitting by her grave. Jim tries to cheer Davey up, telling him that he'll see if David will let them come hunting with Jim.
As he walks to the grave, though, we can tell there is a strain between the men. David murmurs, "I guess you
As he walks to the grave, though, we can tell there is a strain between the men. David murmurs, "I guess you
David seems to grasp how off-balance the house is without his wife when he realizes how dirty and unfit the cabin has become, not to mention Davey. Instead of studying arithmetic like his mother would want, he's tearing pages out of the textbook to make paper sailboats. David is determined to not let his late wife down by allowing their son to become uneducated and "uncivilized," so he decides they'll go into town and he'll consult Parson Jackson about what to do. The parson suggests David marry again so as to provide his son with a new mother, and he knows just the woman to marry. She's an indentured servant*, and if David "buys" her, he'll be saving her from a potentially cruel household. And naturally, a grown man can't have a pretty young thing working for him out in the secluded cabin, so he should marry her too, for propriety's sake. Sneaky, sneaky parson.
*Now, I can practically hear you going, "Whaaaat? He buys her?!" It's true. In those days, indentured slavery was a punishment for falling behind on debts and it's a part of our American past that we really need to discuss more. I'm not exactly the best authority on this, so I direct you to Wikipedia.
Enter Loretta Young, the Rachel of the film's title. She quietly stands as David awkwardly settles a price for her after making sure that the only thing apparently wrong with her is the fact that she talks to herself. (If that's mental illness, I have a problem.) The next morning, the two go through the most excruciating wedding I've ever seen. David can't even bring himself to say "I do," causing the parson to ask him to repeat it. Once they're pronounced man and wife, David takes the ring off of Rachel's finger and returns it to the parson's wife. The look on Young's face is devastating. Clearly, this is not how she pictured her wedding day. Things get worse when Davey rides their horse up to his father and Rachel. David doesn't want to force his son to share the horse with this strange woman, but he doesn't want to not offer her a ride. Rachel assures him that she's used to walking a lot, yet he still can't bring himself to ride with Davey while she walks, so they both walk home.
Back at the cabin, everyone tries to get settled into their new normal. David barely shows Rachel the house before he and Davey run off to do chores. A rather sad moment comes when Davey shows his father a package that had been waiting at the general store in town -- it was for his mother. David tells him to put the package in the house and they'll open it after dinner. Once Davey leaves, Rachel makes sure she's alone and then she grabs the package to look at it. She reads aloud Susan's name and the audience realizes that this is the first time she's learned of it. David hadn't even told her what his wife's name was. I should clarify that David isn't trying to be rude or callous; he misses his wife deeply, and it clouds his thinking in every possible way. He doesn't realize how not talking about certain things ostracizes Rachel, and since he is so attached to his late wife, he doesn't bother to entertain the idea that Rachel could become a real wife. At least not yet.
That night, the boys open the package and find a metronome, only they have no clue what it is until David figures out that Susan was going to use it in her music lessons for Davey. Rachel opens her mouth as if to say something, but she quickly changes her mind. When it's time for bed, David tells Rachel that he'll sleep on the floor in the main room, leaving her his bed. Soon it's morning. Rachel wakes up and looks absolutely lovely with her hair all wild and loose. She looks outside searching for David and Davey, but sees a hawk circling their chickens instead. She can't find the boys, so she decides to scare it off with the gun over the fireplace.
In what may be my favorite moment from the film, she takes the gun down and says to it, "I hope you're loaded! I hope you know what you're doing!" She shoots and misses, the gun's power knocking her to the ground. Of course, Davey has to tell Rachel that his mother was a great shot. David concurs, saying that Susan knew how to "take care of herself." Rachel promises that she'll learn how to shoot, but the boys don't seem so sure. I love this shooting scene because it's honestly the first time in the movie where Rachel shows her true self. Up until this point, she's quiet, passive, and laconic, but the hawk reveals this funny, take-charge woman. It's quite a change, but it doesn't feel weird because we recognize how Rachel is struggling to adjust to her unexpected new life.
Time goes on, and things are still awkward between everyone. Davey doesn't want anything to do with Rachel, despite her best efforts. David is still clueless as to how to behave with her. He starts to gently tell her that he'd like her to fix up the yard and essentially beautify the cabin, which is fine with her and not really a problem, but then he mentions that at noon, Susan always came out to the field. Rachel becomes excited, thinking that it's just a sweet, wifely gesture of coming and seeing her husband for no real reason, but David corrects her -- no, Susan brought him lunch.
In another great bit, the boys are going about their chores, passing Rachel as she walks to the cabin with pails of milk. David just nods his head to her, causing her to angrily talk to herself: "And good morning to you, too. Now don't go talking to yourself. Even if he don't open his mouth for months on end, don't go talking to yourself. It ain't fittin'." Her eyes then wonder to the gun above the fireplace. Maybe if she learned how to shoot really well, the boys would finally appreciate her for something. At the very least, they would talk to her, right? Rachel has a desire to connect, but the boys just don't seem to care. So, she proceeds to start practicing in the basement.
As you could probably surmise, Davey is a horrid child. He's worse than David in his treatment towards Rachel; instead of indifference, he is rude and swears at her (if you call saying "The devil it is!" swearing). He is convinced that Rachel is trying to take his mother's place, although she constantly tries to make it clear that is not her intention. At one point, Davey asks his father why they can't sleep in the big room and relegate Rachel to the tiny loft upstairs. David rightly tells him that they're already offering Rachel such little comfort and it wouldn't be right. Later, Davey tells Rachel she's just "a bond slave" and generally makes her feel terrible. Ugh. I'm not a fan of Davey.
One day, Jim reappears like he promised. He starts lecturing David on remarrying, even hinting that he'd like to finally settle down himself, when Rachel passes them. Jim is dumbstruck, but the two get along quickly. You can tell Rachel is thrilled to finally have someone to talk to, and Young is so subtle. The first time Jim calls her Mrs. Harvey, she seems bewildered, as if realizing for the first time that's who she is now. Without anyone else but the boys around, and with them treating her more like a servant than anything else, she appears surprised to remember that she is in fact a wife. Things are made more uncomfortable when Jim asks, "Is Big Davey the all-devastative, devoted husband he makes himself out to be?" It's said as a joke, but it clearly gets under David's skin.
Suddenly, he's thanking Rachel for making dinner and asking her to sit with them as they eat. Her reaction shows that David never did this before. Then it's David's turn to be surprised when Jim asks Rachel if she knows how to play the spinet, or piano. She says yes at the same time David says no, leading him to say that she never mentioned that skill before. Her reply: "You never asked me." Now we know what she was about to say when the boys were talking about music lessons. David watches as Jim, Davey, and Rachel play and sing, an interesting moment since earlier in the film, David lamented that there would be no more music after dinner like there used to be with Susan.
Jim leaves that night, and the second he's gone, David finally shows interest in Rachel. He asks her where she learned to play the piano and finds out that her father gave music lessons, which left him in debt. When he died, his debts bound Rachel into servitude. They talk as Rachel picks up wood for the fire, and when David offers to hold the wood for her, you know they're getting closer. They continue talking and slowly things become romantic:
David: "Your hair looks sort of blue in the moonlight."
Rachel: "The moon does funny things."
Rachel: "The moon does funny things."
And stupid Davey kills the mood. He whistles the family's "the cabin's in danger" signal from the house, interrupting the kiss that he knew was about to happen. Davey, dude, give us all a break here. David and Rachel run inside, only to find that dumb kid sitting and staring at his mother's metronome. His reason for whistling? "The cabin can be in danger in more than one way, Pa," clearly indicating that a romance with Rachel is not approved by him. Upset, David tells him to go to bed and then warns Rachel that he's not ready to fall in love again. She understands, but it doesn't stop her from grinning when she finds that Jim left his guitar.
Naturally, because he left his guitar, Jim returns the next day, much to Rachel's delight and David's annoyance. To add insult to injury, Jim brought Davey a flute, which allows the boy to join he and Rachel as they play their own instruments and sing, noticeably without David. The film jumps ahead two weeks, and Jim is still there. Not that David's keeping track or anything...
Rachel likes having Jim around, though. He discovers her secret target practice and compares her determination to Susan's, a compliment that Rachel isn't sure is true. She asks Jim what Susan was like, to which he responds, "Practical. Patient. Pure. Pretty, maybe even beautiful. Smart, too." He believes that the two women would've been good friends, leading Rachel to soften towards her ghostly rival.
Suddenly, Jim decides that it's time for him to go. The next day, he hesitantly says goodbye to Rachel. Before he can leave, though, he offers David $40 for
"Now you want to buy me so's you can have a wife and a slave at the same time, just like he has. And then when you want to change, you can sell me to somebody else like he's doing. I'm beginning to believe that's just the way you think about a wife -- both of you. Someone to be bought and sold, someone to cook for you and do your chores, and flatter your manhood every now and then. Manhood. Just look at you. I'm going back to the stockade."
Neither man can go to sleep, however, before they say their piece to Rachel. Jim admits he's in love with her and he'd appreciate her far more than David has. Davey encourages his father to ask Rachel to come back, but he's too proud, so instead he says that Davey would miss her. And the dogs would too. Gee, how sweet.
All of this mushy stuff is stopped when Rachel notices a fire in the same direction as the cabin. David sends her and Davey to the stockade to get help while he and Jim go back. They separate, but Rachel doesn't feel right and sends Davey to go by himself so she can help the men. Jim and David arrive at the house, but there's no fire and it seems quiet until AN ARROW ALMOST HITS THEM. They flee inside as Native Americans shoot off more arrows. There's a lull in the fight as the clouds cover the moon, but the boys can make out Rachel coming back on her horse. They yell at her to hurry to the cabin before the moonlight can come back. Things get full-on scary as a Native American throws Rachel to the ground, and the boys run out to get her. They all take up their guns, but they're not able to stop the barn from catching fire.
David picks this time to tell Rachel that she shouldn't have come back, seeing as how this isn't a place "fitting for a woman." Like the badass she is, she retaliates with "I reckon I know what's fitting for a woman." More arrows and more flames are thrown until everything starts going up in smoke, including the cabin. They hide out in the cellar and wait until they hear gunshots from the people Davey brought from the stockade. The fires are put out, but the buildings are almost totally destroyed.
Jim decides he should leave and only says goodbye to Davey. David and Rachel look over the damage in the cabin, noting that the piano is still in somewhat decent shape. David shyly admits that he always liked the way she played, then he picks up Susan's metronome, which falls apart. The barrier of his late wife has finally come down between them. Rachel asks Davey to get wood for the fireplace to make them food, and when he demurs, David orders him to listen to his "ma." Rachel smiles, and the two embrace.
Quite a few interesting things were going on during the production of this film. William Holden had made a big splash in 1939 when he starred with Barbara Stanwyck in Golden Boy, but since then he hadn't really done anything that would gain him the fame the 1950s eventually did. Going into the military for WWII didn't help, either, so the actor was hoping to kick his career into high gear once he returned from service. It wasn't until Sunset Boulevard that that truly happened.
Now here's an astonishing statistic: Rachel and the Stranger was Mitchum's 36th film, and the guy had only started in Hollywood five years earlier! Mitchum's stardom was steadily rising. He had already completed Crossfire and Out of the Past, and much more was to come. And then the marijuana scandal happened. Shooting was already done on Rachel..., but it still wasn't released. On September 1, 1948, LAPD arrested Mitchum after catching him smoking marijuana in a starlet's home. Everyone, including the actor, figured his career was over, as well as his marriage. He had three pictures waiting to be released and studio executives couldn't shelf them after the millions they poured into making them, so they decided to release them as quickly as they could before things got worse. To everyone's surprise, Rachel... became a hit and was RKO's top film for the year.
Mitchum actually loved making Rachel..., and he got along very well with his leading lady. People assumed that their personalities would clash, Mitchum being the foul-mouthed bad boy and Young being the classy devout Catholic, but both were earthy and intelligent people. According to TCM, Rachel and the Stranger was one of Mitchum's personal favorites. I'm sure some of that fondness came from the fact that he sings a total of five songs in the movie. The actor loved to hang out, read poetry, play the guitar, tell jokes -- Rachel... suits just that.
If you're looking for a modest, charming film, this is it. It's sweet without giving you a toothache, and it's not nearly as melodramatic as it could be. If I was absolutely pressed to use one word to describe the movie, it would be "subtle." Everything about it is unassuming. The characters are very well-developed, especially Rachel. Part of why I love that first scene with her shooting the gun is because up until then, she hasn't been alone and so she hasn't been herself. But all of a sudden, this gorgeously strong woman shows up and once you see it, it makes her scenes where she reverts back to being silent all the more frustrating (in a good way). You just want to shake David and say, "What are you doing?!" The audience easily understands Jim's feelings for Rachel, thanks to Young's radiant, sensitive performance. Fun fact: the film's director, Norman Foster, was Young's brother-in-law! He was married to her older sister Sally Blane from 1935 until his death in 1976. Another fun fact: Ricardo Montalban was also a brother-in-law to Loretta, having been married to her half-sister Georgiana for over sixty years!
I was hoping that Rachel and the Stranger would be available on YouTube, but unfortunately it's not. Next time you see it on TV or for free online, give it a try. It's only 80 minutes and who wouldn't want to pass the time with such lovely people as Holden, Mitchum, and Young?